Sundance’s RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is a feature documentary about the role of Native Americans in popular music history. The film tells the story of a profound, essential, and, until now, missing chapter in the history of American music: the Indigenous influence.
RUMBLE, features a wide array of Native music icons to include Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, Randy Castillo, and others.
At the end of the Sundance Film Festival, Sundance’s RUMBLE was awarded the “World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling” to directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, of Rezolution Pictures. Executive Producer Tim Johnson said the award reflects on every member of the team who put in all the time and research.
Ernie Webb (Cree) of Rezolution Pictures spoke at the Sundance premiere of RUMBLE, and talked about the first music we all hear while pointing to his heart, “the first song we all heard, it was here inside… the heartbeat.”
The concept for what would become Sundance’s RUMBLE: the Indians that Rocked the World, emerged in 2009, and was realized with “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture,” an exhibit which ran at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., from 2010 to 2011, and in New York City from 2012 to 2013.
Johnson (Mohawk), who was an Associate Director for Museum Programs at NMAI for ten years, hired professional musician Stevie Salas (Apache) as contemporary music adviser to help investigate the concept. They started with Brian Wright-McLeod’s “Encyclopedia of Native Music”, published in 2005, “with 1800 entries spanning 100 years.” Johnson said the encyclopedia covered so much ground they needed a valid concept to accelerate the process. They chose musicians from different genres to focus on and who were highly influential.
Salas talked to Indian Country from Japan where he’s on tour, “I met Bryan who asked to interview me for his book on Native American music history when I was in Canada opening for The Stones (by then I had already been Mick Jagger’s music director and lead guitar player). I was a kid playing stadiums with Rod Stewart and wondering why there weren’t any other musicians that looked like me. As I started to dig in, I realized there were indeed many before me. I then met Tim Johnson who offered me a job at NMAI. But it was Brian that really turned me onto the history.”
Johnson explained, “The concept for the exhibit and hence the film, grew from my conceptual investigation into Brian’s book and establishing the formal development process at the museum. Chris Turner, a researcher on my staff, was hugely important to the project as well and did a great deal of research that gave me the confidence to approve the exhibit. That history was unfolding for all of us at the same time.”
Johnson and Salas contacted Rezolution Pictures, producers of the award winning “Reel Injun.” Johnson liked that “Reel Injun” had a valuable educational aspect to it and wanted that to show through in the film. Johnson said, “There was a community feel right from the beginning. It was four years of hard work but very rewarding. The research was important for all involved and there was so much collected and not used but it’s still part of the film, families, the roots, the communities.”
Two of the Native music stars in Rumble that are featured are Jesse Ed Davis and Mildred Bailey.
“He was an amazing talent, a shining light, who contributed to all this music that we all know and have all heard, and who was respected by the leading rock musicians in the world,” Johnson told The Buffalo News in an interview. “John Lennon loved Jesse Ed Davis, and they did a lot of collaboration on music. Jesse’s family was very excited and contributed objects and artifacts.”
Mildred Bailey was a jazz singer and radio program host in the 1930s and 1940s who helped young artists and influenced singing styles, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.
“She was a huge influence on Tony Bennett. He learned his vocal phrasing, improvisation and style from Mildred Bailey,” Johnson said, “We never knew she was a Native, she was Coeur D’Alene. She had all this tremendous influence, developed a unique sound and affected the sound and stylings of jazz.”
In addition to the contributions of Johnson and Salas, Director Catherine Bainbridge and husband Ernie Webb had a big role in creating Rumble.They spoke to Indian Country, “Joy Harjo (Muskogee) and Pura Fe (Tuscarora) laid a foundation of storytelling for the film.
Pura Fe brought in other Native musicians and give her interpretation of “Red and Black Blues music”. In 2009 she wrote about the cultures of the Southeast with an emphasis on the mix of Black and Indian music culture. “Pura Fe singing with Ulali connected us back to early bluesman Charley Patton (Choctaw), showing us how it was all the same thing. It’s a powerful film and we don’t have to argue or debate, just listen.”
“In New Orleans the Mardi Gras black Indians came to us and said that we finally connected the dots for them, like closing a chapter in family history. Many Native men were sent to the Caribbean from the Southeast tribes and African slaves came on ships with much more men than women. They said there were always stories of great grandmothers who were Native because the men on the plantations had children with Native women who worked there.”
“It wasn’t just slavery and plantations, some found freedom in the Underground Railroad or hid away in the swamps and mountains. And they were all mixing music, it was a mish mash, a coming together, they would say “Hey I know this music!’ Music was a healing balm for the horror and genocide, it connected people, the Blues would take away the pain and would uplift the heart.”
“It was dangerous to admit to being an Indian because they had a claim to the land and could be killed and many would hide when the census takers came, but they also hid in plain sight. There was so much material we didn’t tell about, like the white Appalachian connections, like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells who all claimed Indian heritage.”
Another artist in Sundance’s RUMBLE was Link Wray (Shawnee) with his distorted guitar sound which was very influential in early rock and roll and his instrumental “Rumble” was mentioned by so many great rock musicians as their inspiration. Stevie Salas said, “If you hear the info from people you trust, then you would believe it. If Steven Tyler tells you he studied Jesse Ed when putting Aerosmith together or Jeff Beck tells you he played air guitar with Jimmy Page as teens to Link Wray records you gotta take pause.”
Salas ends the Sundance’s RUMBLE film talking about drummer Randy Castillo (Apache) with John Trudell (Santee), to whom the film is dedicated.
It was always dangerous being an Indian for many reasons. Link Wray’s “Rumble”, became the only instrumental song to be banned from the airwaves, because it might incite teenage gang violence in Boston and New York. Corey Harris (Choctaw) said that drums were banned on plantations as an insurrectionary instrument, it’s why bluesmen like Charley Patton used their guitars like drums. Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears” was banned. Buffy Ste. Marie’s career stalled, her music suppressed. Sundance’s RUMBLE is a powerful document and it is really a joyful film. We are still here singing.